30 Days — 30 Ham Radio Contesting Tips
I gave myself a challenge: post one ham radio contesting tip a day to kick off the fall contesting season. The subject matter was easy as I love contesting. The challenge was in writing thirty articles, as well as a few others, during the month instead of my normal 20-25.
What I didn’t want to do was have one article with a simple listing of 30-tips. I wanted to go into a little more depth with each of the tips so that some reasoning and explanation could take place.
But, it’s tough to scroll through the entire month of September to find those tips, so I’m consolidating them here.
Thanks for all of your comments and writing references to these articles; I really appreciate it.
30 Ham Radio Contesting Tips:
Schedule your Contests. The really great thing about contesting is they are regularly scheduled — regardless of great propagation, DXpeditions or the mood of the sun.
Create a contest goal. Goals are good and help motivate you while participating.
Contest on your terms. Contest for and be motivated by your reasons. Not everyone is out to win the contest; it could be you want to learn a new mode.
Have an operating plan. Having a plan provides you guidance for the contest and a baseline to compare against reality in the midst of battle.
Test equipment before the contest. You do want your stuff to work, right?
Update Multiplier Files. Downloading the latest ensures you won’t miss a juicy multiplier during the contest.
Read the contest rules. You’d be surprised how often this bites you — even experienced contesters.
Work a contest one month before the real contest. The sun rotates once a month (27 days)…so work a contest the month before to experience the propagation you will have before the one you really want to concentrate on later.
Test ergonomics. Sitting in a chair contesting a long while will test how well your station is laid out for operating.
Have a guest op checklist. What should you bring as a guest op?
Compete with a partner. Work a contest with someone in your club (together or at your individual stations). Discuss what worked and what didn’t about the contest.
Review Newsletter for Contest DXpeditions. Lots of people travel for contests. Make sure you take a look at the list from your favorite ham radio newsletter.
Have propagation plan. Propagation programs can suggest what will be open where. Having a propagation plan can give you a guide while contesting.
Filter your packet connection. If the contest allows packet, filter the connection to match up with your station.
Accurate logging. A contest is about working stations — and logging them accurately. If you don’t you get penalized.
Send in your log. Even if you didn’t work many stations, you can help the contest by sending in your log to help enable log checking.
Logbook of The World. Want to reduce your QSL’ing chores for contests? Submit your log to Logbook of The World for instant confirmations for you and the people you contact.
Review UBN’s. Uniques, Busted, and Not in the Log. It’s how your log is viewed for accuracy.
Have a QSL System. Even if you use Log of the World, contesters get a lot of QSL card requests. Have a system for processing them.
Use a grey line map. Grey line propagation is the cat’s meow. Having a visual representation of where the grey line is right now can help you point your antennas the right way.
Learn a single band. Want to learn propagation on a band fast? Do a contest on a single band. You’ll learn.
Challenge your operating skill with QRP. Get frustrated fast. Operate a contest QRP from your station. Then learn how to get through the mess for points. It will make you a better operator.
Do an After Action Review. Did we achieve our goal, what went right, what could be improved. Record the results for the next contest.
Join a contesting club. Amp up your contesting knowledge and motivation.
Learn from contesting pros. They are out there. They can teach you a lot.
Leverage your strengths. Great CW operator? Great antennas? Whatever your strength, leverage it for the contest.
Go on a contesting DXpedition. Even if it is to a different state. It’s a very different experience and will teach you a lot.
Practice CW before contests. Notice how much better you are at CW at the end of the contest compared to the start? You need to practice before the contest.
Participate on a contesting team. Many contests offer team (versus club) entries. Join a team to up your motivation for the contest.
Find joy in contesting. It’s there. You know it. Go find it.
There are many more contesting tips, of course. But thirty to start out the fall contesting season seemed like the right number for me.
I had great fun writing these. Enjoy the resource.
Today’s tip: Schedule your contests.
After you have been contesting a while, certain contests stand out for you as ones that you really like to do. Maybe it’s state QSO parties. Or the great DX contests. Or VHF/UHF contests.
Whatever your favorites: schedule them on your calendar.
Here are four great reasons to schedule your contests:
Scheduling your contests defines your time commitment. Whether it be what days to take a vacation day from work or in working with your family for the time, scheduling clears up what the time commitment is for contesting.
Scheduling increases your commitment. By placing the contest on your calendar, you’ve psychologically made a commitment to the contest. Usually this will result in more time “in the chair” working contacts.
Scheduling focuses your efforts on your favorites. By doing so, it should increase your satisfaction with ham radio and contesting because you’ve decided this is the one to schedule.
Scheduling tells you when you should start marshalling resources for the contest. Need to go to that mountain top for the UHF contest? Scheduling tells you when to start preparing for the trip. Need to have that antenna project completed? Scheduling helps give you that extra push to meet a deadline.
The great thing about contests, say in comparison to DXing, is that contests are regularly scheduled events. You can fit them into your life through a little bit of planning.
Working in any non-scheduled contests then become fun additions to what is already planned.
Today’s tip: Create a contest goal.
The more time you spend in a contest, the harder it becomes. Why? Well, there is the effort of copying all those signals in the midst of all the contest noise. Sitting in the chair (or standing) operating takes focus and concentration. And, let’s face it, operating at 3 AM is tough on anyone.
A goal for the contest operation can offer you the “reason for operating” when the operating gets tough. By having a goal, the operating becomes more than just the next contact. The goal helps sustain you during the contest.
Today’s tip: Contest on your terms.
Contesting is many things to many people. If you’re anything like me, you read about the great contesters in the contest writeups and see what they did during the contest. I was very impressed, stunned at the competitiveness of the operators and the stations, and was amazed at the amount of work people would do to simply win a contest.
And then I almost gave up contesting.
You see, I’m not an iron man, butt in the chair for 48-hours. I treasure my sleep. I have a wimpy antenna and for a long time had less than a kilowatt for power. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about how to contest, much less be at the top of the game.
Then I finally figured out I needed to contest on my terms, not some expectation laid down by what I read in a magazine or online about a contest.
You see, ham radio is MY hobby. I choose to do contesting as the major portion of my hobby. So I’ll follow all the contesting rules, of course, but which contests, how much time I spend in the contest, and what my goals are for the contest is contesting on my terms.
What are your terms for contesting?
Today’s tip: Have an operating plan.
If you plan on spending a significant amount of time in a specific contest, particularly contests that are a full 48-hours long or ones that require certain times off, it’s a great idea to create an operating plan for the contest.
Having a contest plan is useful in five ways:
Plan the operating/off time. Whether you need to take time off because of the contest rules or want to take time off because of a 48-hour contest, having a plan for the contest will tell you when to take off the time.
Plan band changes. Sometimes we are so caught up in the contest — or are so tired from operating — we forget that other bands are opening. For example, at the low end of the sunspot cycle, you might forget that EU opening on 40-meters starts at 3 PM local time on the east coast of the United States.
Plan propagation openings. In the middle of the contest, it’s easy to forget while running Europe that long path to Australia is open as well. Having a propagation reminder will help you check other antenna directions at the right time.
Planning gives you a comparison to current operating. All contest plans, someone said, are valid until the first QSO. The idea of a plan is not that it needs to be strictly followed, but gives you a comparison so that you can contrast current operating reality with that of something that makes sense. In the midst of battle, it’s hard to know if you’re doing the right thing. But if your contest plan says to check 15-meters, you can and know that it was set up to help you succeed. If 15-meters isn’t open, that is OK; you just did a reality check against a plan.
A plan gives you two data points for the next contest. The plan you had and the reality you experienced. From this, you can create a better plan for the next contest.
Contest plans aren’t for every contest. But they are a great help for the right contests.
Today’s tip: Test Equipment Before Contest.
You know something won’t work, don’t you? Even when you were on the air last night? Yeah, it breaks.
What should you test? Here’s a checklist for what to test before a contest:
Each antenna on each band. Somehow, the SWR always goes up before a contest.
Each rotor. For some reason, they won’t turn the day of a contest.
Each radio can receive. Make sure the radio can hear signals on the band.
Each radio can transmit. With an SWR that makes sense.
Each computer. Make sure the software comes up and can see the radios and rotors.
Each macro. Make sure your CW/SSB/RTTY/PSK messages work as advertised with your function keys, including transmitting.
Each sound card. Make sure the levels of the sound card are set correctly and work with the radios.
Testing is so boring. But much better to find out that the 80-meter vertical doesn’t work in the daylight than finding out in the heat of battle when it is dark outside.
Today’s tip: Update Multiplier Files.
One of the great things about contesting is that groups of people will go to all sorts of places on the planet to give the deserving a new multiplier. They have a lot of fun too, of course, but what happens is that right before a big contest, all sorts of new stations will come on the air with weird prefixes to boot.
Usually, these stations coordinate with the people that maintain the “master files.” They ensure that the prefixes and stations are associated with the right country for the contest. And that means that when you work that really loud station, your contesting program will know the correct multiplier because you’ve downloaded the latest multiplier file for the contest and installed it on your personal computer.
Where to find the latest multiplier files? It depends on your contesting program. Right now, here are a few of the good links:
Amateur Radio Country Files: http://www.country-files.com/
Having the latest files for the contest means the chances of you missing or incorrectly assigning a multiplier from the contest is greatly reduced.
Today’s tip: Read the contest rules.
You think I’m kidding? I’m not. One of the things on my checklist to take with me on DXpeditions for contesting is a paper copy of the rules.
It amazes me, too, that every time I take the rules with me and read through them, I find out something new about the contest that I didn’t know. Even big contests like CQ WW or a big ARRL contest — the rules vary.
Besides, we never remember exactly how the multipliers are counted. Or how the points are exactly constructed. Or where the log is to be submitted. We think we remember, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t.
Reviewing the rules before the contest is always a good idea. Weird. But, a good thing to do
Today’s tip: Work a contest one month before the “real” contest.
The classic example for me is to work the CQ WW RTTY contest the fourth weekend in September, about one month before the CQ WW SSB Contest the fourth weekend in October.
Of course, there are many that work the CQ WW RTTY Contest just for that contest alone, and I’m one of them.
But the beauty of working the RTTY Contest in September is that it is one month before CQ WW SSB in October.
Why is that important?
Put on your propagation hat and what you experience at the end of September — the timing of the band openings, the reach of the signals, the level of absorption, and the strength of the openings — will very much be what the end of October is all about.
That sun, you know. It turns once a month and the sunspots that are around at the end of September will most likely be there at the end of October too.
Take good notes during the CQ WW RTTY contest for how the bands are working. You’ll be rewarded in your plan for the CQ WW SSB Contest at the end of October.
Today’s tip: Test Ergonomics.
One of the really great things about contesting is that it gives you answers to a whole range of questions about your radio station. Does the antenna work? Are you working stations faster than other locals? Do your CW skills cut it for a CW contest?
Many questions — and fast answers.
One of the great questions to be answered by a contest is this: how well is your station laid out for your comfort and efficiency in a contest?
We spend hours at the radio doing our work on the hobby. Operating a 48-hour contest will tell you how well you’ve done putting the pieces of your station together to maximize your comfort.
Is your chair right? Height of your table or desk? Keyboard setup for the computer? CW key in the right place? CW key and mouse in the right place? Easy to change antennas? Rotor right for the contest?
I’d suggest taking one contest just to address the ergonomics of your station. Take good notes when you are done about how easy it was to operate your station with the strain of fast contacts over a long period of time.
You’ll be glad you did.
Today’s tip: Have a guest op checklist.
One of the great privileges I’ve had over my contesting career has been to operate from some of the great multi-operator stations: K4JA, W0AIH, K9NS, TI5N and others.
But with great stations comes great responsibilities. Outside of the operating, it was always my intent to minimize the effort of the host of the station to care for me.
It means I developed a checklist of what I needed to bring to the guest station so as to maximize my comfort and minimize what was needed to be provided by the host station.
Everyone’s checklist will be different. But here are some categories to consider:
Sleeping. Bring your own pillow?
Beverages. Do you like a specific type of soda? Bring it.
Food. Favorite snacks or specific types of food you use to contest.
CW key. Used to your own? Bring it.
As noted, the list can be varied, different for different operators, and change based upon the host station.
But, be a great guest operator — implement a guest op checklist.
Today’s tip: Compete with a Partner.
Being competitive — as in being number one in the world in a contest — is exceptionally difficult to do. Practice, willingness (and money) to travel to the most advantageous locations for a contest, and good old skill are needed to have a shot at world number one.
So what is a contester to do? My answer: compete with a partner.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of belonging to a local radio club (of any sort) is that you will normally relate to those that are also into contesting as part of their ham radio experience.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this relationship is that each can pick a contest and “compete” with the other person in the club. When I have done this in the past, it always got me more fired up to do better during the contest weekend simply knowing that another LOCAL person was working hard to compete with me in the contest.
Scheduling a few off times — or having a two meter frequency to chat — to talk through what each of us is experiencing during the contest is a great builder of friendship.
In your next contest, try and compete with one of the brothers or sisters of your local ham club. You’ll find it a completely different — and enjoyable — experience.
Today’s tip: Review Newsletter for Contest DXpeditions.
I’ve written in this series about the need to update your multiplier files in order to capture the correct country and zone for those operators going off to far-away places to give the deserving their needed multiplier in the contest.
However, there is a difference between what your computer remembers and what you know so that you can recognize what you are hearing during the contest. At 3 AM local time, weird callsigns from far away places don’t make much sense and you are liable to tune away silently because you are tired — and miss the juicy multiplier passively waiting for you to work it in your multiplier file.
There are dozens of little known stations and DXpeditions on the air for major contests. The only way to know about them is to read your favorite DX or Contesting Newsletter.
These newsletters will — week by week — update us on the stations planning on being active in the contest. Reading your favorite newsletter will help you know that “this one is a multiplier” when you hear it on the air during the contest.
Today’s tip: Have a Propagation Plan.
It is one thing to have an overall plan for a contest — what bands to operate, what QSO goals to have, and when to plan for off times. But a contest plan is not the whole story.
A big part of the contest is propagation and propagation is a variable right up to the contest, if not during the contest as well.
Knowing what bands are open to which locations is a critical skill to learn and this contesting skill can be significantly enhanced through the use of propagation programs.
What these programs can do is take the solar flux, K-index and/or sunspot numbers and provide you a decent indication of what bands will be open to various locations around the planet. Printing these predictions out and having them beside you while you contest can be a great reference during the contest.
I’m a great believer in not having the contester think much during the contest — because the longer we contest without sleep, the less thinking is capable of being done. We are capable of only doing basic activities — such as copying and sending code while working our logging program.
Consequently, a contest plan, propagation prediction and other contesting tools being available to a contester is an invaluable asset to help keep the contester oriented on the right band at the right time with antennas pointed in the right directions.
Today’s tip: Filter your Packet Connection.
I was working a significant implementation of software for my work several years ago. It was a ton of work and a lot of pressure to get things done. Yet, one of the great breaks for me was the ability to contest — it totally gets you out of the pressured environment.
The really interesting thing about this project was that it was the first time I had worked with “human interface” consultants — people who made it their profession to understand and make recommendations for how software should be presented on the computer screen for people using the software.
On the Friday of the contest, I was speaking with one of these consultants and the cardinal rule for the number of windows open on the desktop at one time for clarity and understanding was: four.
The information in four windows is the most humans can realistically deal with at one time.
And then I went to CQ WW SSB and had our contesting software open on the desktop and, for the fun of it, I counted the number of windows open at one time.
You know it was more than four, right? I counted a total of eleven.
For our hobby, we’re willing to almost triple the number of windows open on our desktop compared to what people who do this for a living recommend. That’s contesting!
But, information overload is an important subject for contesters. We have all these windows open, asking for our intention. We have our paper based plans, propagation plans, and operating schedule by our sides. We have at our instantaneous access all that we need to do operate during a contest.
So information overload is actually something to think through. And one of the things that we can do to reduce the volume of information coming to us during the contest — and asking for our limited attention, tiring us more with insistence of concentration on the information, and distracting us from getting the call and exchange right — is the amount of packet information coming to us from the network.
Most clusters and/or software programs allow you to filter the packet spots you want to see, whether by band, by mode, or even from which operator locations making the spots.
Customizing these filters for each contest you operate is a great idea to reduce the information overload experienced during the contest.
Today’s tip: Accurate logging.
It is sometimes forgotten that contesting consists of three key activities: making contacts, working multipliers, and accurate logging. Most of the writing out there, as well as the planning and preparation, focus on making the contacts and working multipliers. Accurate logging is often, at most, an afterthought.
But accurate logging is critical to the score. What you put into your log directly translates into points for the contest.
Inaccurate logging costs you:
Loss of points. Inaccurately logging the call and/or exchange information means that all the work you did for that contact is lost. No points for the contact — and if you blow it on a multiplier, you blow the points and the additional points associated with the multiplier because multipliers can only be worked once in a contest.
Penalty points. Many contests not only dock you the one contact, but will also dock you penalty points, usually equivalent of three more contacts and the associated points.
Loss of time. Inaccurate logging results in working the same stations over as duplicate contacts later in the contest. In fact, one of the metrics some of the larger scores use is the percentage of contacts that are duplicates — time spent where you could have been working a new contact for more points.
There are many examples of a contest being so close in points that the only differentiater between the two scores ends up being the accuracy of the log.
So taking the time to get the call and exchange right is a good contesting tip. The time you take will save you points and time later.
Today’s tip: Send in your log.
It may seem obvious that if you participate in a contest that you should send your log, usually electronically, to the contest sponsors. But many hams don’t, and that’s a shame.
The reasons for not sending in the log varied, but all the reasons come down to two basic themes: not enough contacts to warrant turning in a log and not having the time.
With the advent of electronic submission of logs, I now dismiss the “not enough time” arguments out of hand. Electronically submitting your log takes less than ten minutes. While there are sometimes issues with the ‘robots’ that accept your submission, most of the time electronic submission is simple and fast.
The “not enough contacts” to justify sending in a log is usually based upon a contester not thinking that what he or she has done is important for the contest — it’s only three contacts, so who cares? — or not thinking that it matters to the contest committee.
But sending in your log is significant for several reasons:
Logs are used to cross reference other logs to validate contacts. Your three or three hundred contacts are thrown into the mix and help the contest sponsors validate what happened in the contest.
Your log reduces the “uniques” count in other logs. If all you do is go into the contest and work ten stations without submitting a log, you created ten “uniques” for other stations. Uniques, while not taking away points, are a flag to contest sponsors. By submitting your log, you validate those contacts and reduce the “uniques” in the contest.
You may win an award. There are many examples of logs submitted in some categories that are unique and your 300 contacts will win for that division. You may not feel it’s deserved…but the paper on the wall will give you bragging rights.
Completion of the contest. Sending in the log closes out the contest portion of your participation. Closed loops are a good thing.
Sending in your log after the contest is the right thing to do. Even if you have ten contacts and think they mean nothing, send in the log and help the sponsors validate what happened during the contest. Every contact counts — and the way it counts is by sending in the log
Today’s tip: Send your log to Logbook of The World.
After sending in your contest log to the contest committee, there’s another important task to complete — sending your log into the Logbook of The World.
For those who may not be familiar with this service:
ARRL’s Logbook of the World (LoTW) system is a repository of log records submitted by users from around the world. When both participants in a QSO submit matching QSO records to LoTW, the result is a QSL that can be used for ARRL award credit.
My first experience with LoTW was after my trip to Bermuda. I, of course, was expecting an onslaught of QSL requests from the trip, but I was reminded that I should upload the logs to the LoTW. Within a couple of days returning from Bermuda, I did just that — and was rewarded with over 50 countries worked and hundreds of contacts confirmed for the deserving by other hams who had uploaded their logs as well.
Sending your log to the LoTW has several advantages for you:
Instant confirmation of the contact. This confirmation can be used by you for awards.
Time savings. No handwriting of QSL card requests for your awards, mailing them to the station, waiting for the return, and then submitting your award.
Reduced QSL requests. One of the things that happens with contesters is that they generate a tremendous number of QSL requests from the stations they work looking for confirmation. When you send in your log to LoTW, no matter how few the contacts, the demand of your time to return QSL requests will drop.
Dollar savings. Fewer QSL cards. Fewer stamps. Fewer envelopes. This is a good thing.
While it may be terrific to get physical QSL cards from your favorite stations, most contesters view QSL’ing from their contest participation as a necessary evil that comes with the territory. But sending your log to the LoTW will help put the focus back where it belongs: on contesting.
Today’s tip: Review UBN’s.
If you’re new to contesting, your first question is “what’s a UBN?” It’s a good question. Based upon some log review analytics, unverified contacts with other stations fall into these three categories:
Unique: The callsign worked in the log was unique compared to all other logs submitted in the contest. This is one reason why it is important for all contesters to send in their log. Points, however, are not deducted for unique calls in the log.
Busted (sometimes called “bad”): are those callsigns that are valid, but not copied correctly. For example, putting K9JX in the log as an incorrect copy of my callsign K9JY means that your contact will not count and points are lost.
Not-in-the-log: You claimed K9JY as a contact, but K9JY’s log doesn’t have you in it. Since there wasn’t a two-way confirmation of the contact, it was removed from your score.
UBN reports are provided to you after the contest committee has reviewed the logs from the contest. Not all contests participate, however, but the major CQ Magazine and ARRL Contests provide this service.
UBN reports constitute a major measure of the accuracy of your log. The higher your accuracy, the higher your score given the number of contacts.
Reviewing your UBN report — and trending it over time — will give you a good indication on how accurate your logging is and which direction it is heading.
Today’s tip: have a QSL system.
One of the side effects of contesting is that you can generate a lot of QSL card requests from other hams who want a card from your station. Whether it is for reasons of DX, county hunting, state confirmation, prefix collecting — there are a hundred reasons — contesters get QSL cards.
Consequently, it is important to have a well thought out system for working the QSL process. Your system needs to address several areas:
Logbook of The World. The Logbook of the World service enables you to electronically confirm contacts with other stations. As I noted in “30 Ham Radio Tips — Logbook of The World,” there are some very good reasons for electronically submitting your log to this service as it reduces incoming QSL requests.
This means it is important that you have gone through the LoTW setup process, gotten your certificate, and have a log program that will format up your contesting logs into a LoTW format so you can submit them after the contest.
Direct Cards. Many stations, especially if your station is a new “something” for them, will send you cards directly. Here you need to ensure you have the right stuff to process them: Your QSL cards, envelopes, stamps, a logging program that will identify the sent and receive dates for the QSL card so you have tracking, and knowing how to process International Reply Coupons with your post office.
Bureau Cards. By far, the greatest number of QSL cards come through the worldwide bureau systems. The process is different than direct cards in that you don’t want to send bureau cards back directly to the stations as it will break your local bank.
Utilizing a bureau service, such as that provided by the ARRL here in the United States, means that you have to get the cards lined up by their rules and then be prepared to ship them off to the bureau for processing.
There is also a new service available that addresses bureau cards called Global QSL. All you need to do with this service (after creating an account and purchasing the cards) is upload your ADIF file to them and they will process all of the cards in the file. Simple and straightforward — and making bureau cards much easier to handle for the contester.
QSL cards are a fact of contesting. Having a QSL system in place for your station will ensure that the process is handled efficiently.
Today’s tip: Use a grey line map.
For those who may be new to ham radio or propagation, the grey line is the area on the earth where the time is between day and night. This time period, longer at the poles, less at the equator, is both a wonderful propagation time and the time of transition between bands.
Knowing where the grey line is at the moment — using a great visual tool such as a grey line map — is a great accessory to have for a contest.
Depending upon where we are at in the sunspot cycle, ten meters can go from open to closed as soon as darkness hits or 160 meters can be open across the planet during the grey line and shut down to a chorus of static as soon as the sun comes over the horizon.
The grey line itself has many interesting, and perhaps still unknown, propagation characteristics as well. Signals travel further, are louder, and are geographic specific while in the grey line.
Consequently, in a contest the time between day and night or night and day is a big time of transition — and tough decision-making. Is the grey line running through our QTH and a distant multiplier that we need on 80-meters? Do I try and stay on 80-meters to see if a multiplier will be heard or do I shift to 20-meters and work the run? How should I use my second radio? How strong will the band open after the sun comes up? Should I try a higher band first?
This is classic contesting strategy: where on the bands should I be to maximize my score? The grey line work — for multipliers, for when to shift bands, for how the radio(s) are used — is one of the critical tasks for the contester to learn. And a grey line map is a great help in making those decisions.
Today’s tip: Learn a single band.
Many, if not most, contests operate on a 48-hour clock. As a single operator, you may have rules that state you can only operate a certain number of those 48-hours, but there are two full days of contesting where there will be a good number of signals on the air.
That is stating the obvious, of course. But this little obvious fact has some good implications — you get two full days of activity, two cycles to learn, and two opportunities to see how things work.
This is a perfect environment for learning how a single band works for propagation.
A band operates differently over the course of a day and night; the full 24-hours is rarely used by an amateur radio operator to learn about how a band operates.
For example, the midnight opening on 15-meters to Scandinavia from the east coast or the 4 PM long path to Japan. How 80-meters opens and closes with the grey line. Or working South America over the north pole long path.
Normally in a contest, we’d rarely check all of these paths because we’re too busy running on the hot band. But using the contest as an activity booster in a 48-hour time frame allows the ham operator to learn about a single band in a short period of time.
If you’re looking to improve your understanding of a band’s propagation, enter a contest in the single band category. You’ll learn about your band in a hurry.
Today’s tip: Challenge your operating skill with QRP.
There are some really hot operators out there — when they have the big amplifier with the stacked beams and in the right geographic location. But put them at an average station in a geographic neutral location and they can’t make the score of an average contester in the area.
Not enough operating skill. Contesters working without the benefit of thousands of dollars of towers, antennas, and location have to contest the old fashioned way: they have to earnit.
Consequently, they learn about propagation on the bands, how to bust that pileup without the best equipment and location, and when to call CQ and when to Search and Pounce.
If your operating skills haven’t been tested, I’d suggest this: operate a contest QRP.
First starting the contest, you’ll be totally frustrated — and that’s good. It tells you that you have to figure out new ways of working a station, getting that multiplier, and busting that pileup.
After a while, you’ll become less frustrated because a couple of things that you’ve done worked and you’ll start putting stations in the log.
After a day, you’ll have figured out a lot about what propagation has to be for you to work a station, how loud the station has to be at your S-meter before they can hear you, and whether or not tail-ending or calling off frequency works.
By day two, you’ll be less frustrated still and will get into a bit of a groove now that you’ve tried new ways of working stations.
By the end of the contest, the uncomfortable ways of trying to work a station will have become comfortable — the sure sign that learning has taken place.
And the next contest that your operate QRO you’ll have a better score because you worked the last contest QRP — and increased your operating skill because of it.
Today’s tip: Do an After Action Review.
After Action Reviews were originally done by the military, but now carry over into many different situations where one desires to improve performance. Essentially, an After Action Review provides a great feedback method — for a contester — to determine what could have been done better before, during, and after the contest.
While there is extensive documentation on how to conduct an After Action Review (for example, this “technical guidance” PDF file from the US AID organization), the review really boils down to answering the following questions:
What was expected to happen? This is where the importance of some level of goals for a contest is needed. Whether the goals are oriented to number of stations and multipliers worked or for non-contest oriented work, having an objective for the contest is the basis of knowing what was expected.
What actually occurred? At the end of the contest, where did we end up in comparison to the goals we had for this particular contest? This is not the events of the contest, but simply a comparison of we wanted “X” and we ended up at “Y” — so how close were we?
What went well, and why? Here we analyze the events of the contest to figure out what went well and why. For example, we moved to 20-meters at EU sunrise and enjoyed a two hour run. The why was because we didn’t wait to change bands; we moved away from 40-meters to twenty right at EU sunrise to get there at the beginning of the opening.
What can be improved, and how? Here we try and figure out what needs to be better next time. Perhaps it wasn’t testing the antennas before the contest and we found a short in the cable to the beam, or not reading the contest rules before the contest, or not getting enough sleep to really operate 80-meters as a single band. Whatever it was, this is the place to note the improvements.
What went well and what needs to be improved should be noted so that these areas can be addressed for the next contest.
While this can seem to be overly formal (and it could be…), the idea here is to take some time after the contest while the events are fresh in our minds and write down the answers to these four questions. In doing so, you will improve your contesting experience — both performance and your enjoyment of the contest.
Today’s tip: Join a contesting club.
Clubs are the heart of Amateur Radio, in my humble opinion. Hams in clubs provide support for their members, encourage ham radio friendships, and give focus and direction for their membership.
Now, general interest ham radio clubs are an important start to people who may be interested in contesting. There are usually programs provided to the membership about contesting or subsets of the membership roster who do ham radio contests. Most general interest clubs also sponsor a Field Day which is often the first glimpse of contesting-like operation for a ham (it was mine).
But most areas also have clubs specifically devoted to ham radio contesting. Because the club can submit club scores, the club is often geographically disbursed and meetings are anywhere from formal to ad hoc depending upon the club.
There are a few common characteristics of contest clubs. Most have an e-mail reflector. Most have a web site. Most have an electronic newsletter.
Off of these three common contest club traits come the unique advantages of belonging to a contest club:
Contesting support. Someone in the contest club has your logging program, can answer your question about the rules of a specific contest, and can tell you their experiences in a contest with that radio and antenna setup that you are thinking of doing. This is much more specific support than you are likely to find at a differently focused Amateur Radio Club.
Camaraderie. Because a contesting club will submit scores as a club, there is a much stronger sense of “team” in a contest club.
Contesting e-mail reflectors tend to be much more active than other types of radio reflectors because of the focus on the results of the last contest or the planning of the next contest.
As with most things, specialization increases focus and knowledge about a particular subject. Specializing in contesting as part of your ham radio hobby is no different. And the fastest way to increase your knowledge about contesting outside of operating contests is to belong to a ham radio contesting club.
Today’s tip: Learn from contesting pros.
Contesting pros are all over the place; on the air, quoted in print, and self-revealing in their write ups about the contest.
Yet, the rest of us tend to read the stories, check out the pictures, listen to them on the air in amazement — and ignore the lessons being taught to us.
One of the best ways of learning from a contesting pro is listening to that person running during a contest. Or working a pileup for that new multiplier.
One of the best ways of learning propagation is reading about the contesting pro checking 20-meters for that elusive long path opening and scoring a new multiplier.
One of the best ways of learning how a station should be set up is by examining the pictures that shows the placement of the hardware, computer, and logging windows used by the contesting pro.
No, the learning isn’t “in your face.” But you can learn a lot from the great contesters out there by looking for the lessons.
Today’s tip: Leverage your strengths.
One of the truisms in corporate life is to “leverage your strengths” so as to better your performance.
Yet, as contesters, we try and be all things to the contest world and stretch ourselves too thin. Sure, all of us will work a variety of contests and modes, but few of us will focus on those areas that are strengths in contesting.
A classic example is one who is great at CW and not as good at SSB. Or a contester fabulous at RTTY trying to duplicate that effort on phone.
Instead of operating skills, many of us ignore the reality of our equipment and geography. Instead of trying to be number one in the world in DX contests when we have a mere dipole and a hundred watts, we should focus our efforts on contests where a dipole and a hundred watts would give us the best advantage.
Every station and contester has relative strengths to others. These should be identified and then maxed out to create the best contesting environment for you.
Today’s tip: Go on a contesting DXpedition.
For as long as I have been an amateur radio operator, I’ve wanted to go on DXpeditions. Fortunately, with the Cinco Nueve Contest Group, I’ve been able to go on a couple where I’ve gone out of the country and operated in contests.
But, you don’t have to leave the country to go on a “DXpedition.” While living in the Midwest, people took a trip to North and/or South Dakota to help put a needed multiplier on the air for Sweepstakes.
Last year, the Cinco Nueve Contest Group drove from Washington and Oregon to Idaho to put Idaho — a unique multiplier for the CQ WW RTTY Contest — on the air for the deserving.
Here are some good reasons to go to that relative rare one for a contest:
The other end of pileups. Yes, they ARE different on the other end from where you’ve been calling for your entire ham radio career. How to handle them is a skill you will need to quickly learn.
Speed of operation. Because you are rarer in the contest, the activity stays up longer and operates faster. If you are familiar with “speed” in sports, then you’ll be able to relate that DXpeditions up your speed game.
Logistics. Picking up everything and going somewhere to operate provides a completely new set of challenges. Going through the logistics experience helps you understand what is important for operating — helping you set priorities for your own station back home.
Motivation for the contest. You made the trip. You are more likely to be committed to the contest then if you were surrounded by all of the comfort — and tasks — of home.
Going on a contest DXpedition aren’t for everyone, of course. But if you get the opportunity, my suggestion is GO. You’ll learn a lot.
Today’s tip: Practice CW before contests.
When a contest starts, it’s fast and furious. When I first started contesting, I was always amazed at how fast the CW was for the stations doing the running.
Of course, I was no slouch at CW either, but even though I was on the air a lot and was into Morse Code, that wall of fast CW was hard to get used to after ensuring the station was setup right for the contest and everything (usually) checked out.
By the end of the contest, no matter what, I was also much faster at my CW speeds then I was before the contest started. There is a rhythm to CW and contests that takes over and helps the operator copy code.
Consequently, I started practicing my CW before the contest, just to get into the groove of the dits and dahs. Get a feel for the wall of CW that starts a contest.
Bring up Morse Runner and pop it up at 40-WPM with a little pileup and you’ll be rocking with the best of them come contest time.
Practice. It will help you penetrate that wall of CW at the start of a contest.
Today’s tip: Participate on a contesting team.
One of the great things about some contests is having a “team” category. The idea is that a group of people can get together and form a contesting “team” and have each of their scores contribute to an overall team score for the contest.
This is differentiated from a club score because the team size is usually much less than the entire club effort and from a multi category in that each operator is operating as a single operator during the contest.
But, the overall score goes to a team.
The advantages of signing up for a team are pretty interesting:
Your commitment to the contest increases. Because you are part of a team, you will spend more time in the contest.
Your competitive nature will increase the score. Who wants to have the lowest score on the team?
You will focus more on the score. Capture those elusive multipliers. Look for weird openings during the contest. Really up your contesting game.
Have more fun. Teams often will instant message back and forth on how they are doing in the contest, keeping up the interest and the fun.
Besides, you can usually make up your own team name. There are some pretty interesting ones out there…
Today’s tip: Find joy in contesting.
In this final installment of thirty ham radio contesting tips, it all comes down to joy.
Contesting is exceptionally challenging to operators. Contests, whether entered competitively or simply as an afternoon break on a Sunday, are demanding. Our equipment must work the way it was designed. Our computers need to have all of their interfaces working. Our bodies need to be in shape for the time we will spend contesting. Our operating skills need to be at the ready. And our head needs to be in the contest.
The great thing for me about contesting is this ability to let the rest of the trials and tribulations I may be experiencing in my life fall away for the duration of the contest. The contest, because of the focus on the operating, becomes the “flow” experience where time melts away.
The thrill of a monster contest run effortlessly handled, the elusive multiplier that gets snapped up by checking a long path propagation route, and the great honor of hearing those familiar calls once again on the air is the joy contesting brings to me.
So my final contesting tip is simple: find your joy in contesting.